Polish culture embodies such a deep sense of myth and ritual that the works of its theater artists transcend their time, a Kansas University professor said Wednesday.
"The Polish people generally have a deep sense of the poetic," said Robert Findlay, a theater professor who studied extensively in Poland. "It has something to do with the quality of recognizing metaphors. They see connections between distant things. Their poetry relates to a long tradition of mythological symbols."
Findley spoke to about 30 people at a lunchtime University Forum at Ecumenical Christian Ministries. The lecture was part of KU's Spirit of Poland program, which has included a performance by the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra and other lectures.
THE WORKS OF Jerzy Grotowski, the Polish avant-garde theater director, embody both the mythic and political elements of Polish culture, Findlay said. Findlay studied at Grotowski's Polish Theater Lab in the 1970s and later at the director's institutes in Italy and California, after the director went into exile in 1982.
Although few of Grotowski's works were overtly political, the director nevertheless presented an alternative to the political dogma of the Polish communists through the use of non-materialistic images and plays.
"In the 1960s, he kept saying his work wasn't political," Findlay said. "Later I asked him about it, and he said he had to say that so he could stay political."
GROTOWSKI'S productions in the 1960s and '70s, seen in Poland, the United States and throughout the world, were characterized by small spaces, forcing the audience to join at least passively in the activities of the play.
His actors, who would spend upwards of two years rehearsing a one-hour play, would condition themselves to perform astonishing things with their bodies, such as striking living-statue poses in the lobby and holding them for hours. During the performance, the actors would go through rituals that imitated in part the Catholic Mass as well as rituals of their own invention.
"He saw his audience as a passive participant in a kind of ceremony," Findlay said. "It's like the Catholic tradition of ritual. The theater doesn't become a church, but the actors function on such a high level that the performance becomes similar to holy ritual."
GROTOWSKI'S 1968 book, "Towards a Poor Theater," influenced many experimental theater artists worldwide, Findlay said. But the book was only published in Poland last year.
"I think that represents a landmark, that this work is finally available in the Slavic language," he said.
Findlay said he doesn't know if Grotowski will return to Poland now that the Solidarity movement controls the government. He's not even sure the current structure of state-funded theater will survive.
"I heard recently that maybe only eight theaters will be funded this year by the government," he said. "It may be that the Polish theater will fall victim to the same economic pressures we see in the West."